Saturday, September 25, 2004

Inferno: Canto 31 -- The Edge of the Pit

We reach the edge of the eighth circle and a rather benevolent Antaeus who lowers the poets into the ninth and final circle of hell. The guardians of the ninth circle, the Titans who were overthrown by Zeus and company in the final conquest of the classical heavens (the next great deposition occurring around 29 A.D.), are imprisoned here for their natures, which Ciardi states result from their being "sons of earth, embodiments of elemental forces unbalanced by love, desire without restraint and without acknowledgment of moral and theological law" (240). Ciardi continues to say that the Titans are symbols of the earth-trace that every devout man must clear from his soul, the unchecked passions of the beast" (240). Without pausing but in passing I'll add that the gods of the old religions always become the devils of the new, and these giants who guard the ninth circle are not keeping anyone out. Their function, then, must be to keep something in.

Dante shudders at the sight of them, "for where the instrument of intelligence/ is added to brute power and evil will,/ mankind is powerless in its own defense" (54-6). (Personally, I'd rather have an sharp devil on my tail than one who was dull, for brute force is the last refuge of he who has the weakest argument.) The first they cross is Nimrod, whom Virgil calls a babbling fool after the giant utters "rafel mahee amek zabi almit" (67), which I take to mean, "Dude! You don't want to go down there!" The point is that Virgil might have too early dismissed this for babbling because it was uttered in a language he did not know; nonetheless, his identity lends credence to it, for it was Nimrod who built the Tower of Babel and tried to reach the gods through contrivance rather than contrition. While they are not to see Briareus, whom Virgil describes in the Aeneid, they do encounter the unchained (for he did not join in the rebellion against the gods but has the same nature as those who did -- let this be a testament to the difference between nature and the will -- our nature is good, our will is corrupt) Antaeus who picks up Virgil (who holds Dante to shield him from the strength of the grip in the same way as he sat between Dante and Geryon's tail to shield him from its sting) in his free arms and lowers the two onto the ice below, a place where lesser demons dare not go.